Cast your minds back a little over a decade and you will remember the English national team’s problematic left side. The left-midfield role was scarcely contested, and without much quality too. Nick Barmby and Trevor Sinclair benefitted hugely from this.
The left-back slot was just as much of a problem. After Stuart Pearce’s long reign as England’s regular number 3 came to an end, Graeme Le Saux was a natural replacement during Glenn Hoddle’s spell in charge. Hoddle’s favoured 3-5-2 formation with wing-backs on either side ensured the position was Le Saux’s to lose as it suited his game down to the ground.
Moving on, Kevin Keegan struggled to find a consistent performer at left-back. More often than not, Keegan played Phil Neville in a position which, despite claiming it as his favourite position, is not a position he was ready to play at international level at that time.
When Sven Goran Eriksson took over in 2001, it kicked off several months of England caps being given out to any available, English, Premier League left-back. Chris Powell made 5 appearances for his country during this time and Michael Ball won a solitary cap. Gareth Barry was also trialled in this position but failed to make the position his own as he was still finding his way (and his best position) at Aston Villa in his early years as a professional.
Ashley Cole thankfully came along and made sure that number 3 shirt was his for years to come. Initially the lack of competition may have had something to do with it. But the improvement in his defending, rather than showing a reliance on pace to get himself out of trouble, in the last few years has seen him become one of the best full backs, defensively, in Europe.
Only now does Cole have real competition for his place.
The maturity of Leighton Baines over the last 12 months has been a joy to watch. He has always been a player of great quality on the ball. He showed that in his time at Wigan. At Everton, Baines has grown in confidence year after year and formed an unrivalled partnership with Steven Pienaar down the left of Everton’s improving team. He is better technically with the ball at his feet than Cole, with crossing ability to put Cole to shame. What perhaps lets Baines down in his challenge to become England’s left-back, is his lack of experience in big games. Rightly or wrongly, players at clubs taking part in the Champions League are always more likely to be picked for England. The rumoured move to Manchester United this summer didn’t materialise, but had it done, it would’ve been interesting to see how much closer Baines would be pushing Cole for that England place by now.
Cole’s understudy at Chelsea is 23 year old Englishman Ryan Bertrand. At 23, Bertrand would have no doubt been hoping to have played more 1st team football than he has done. But on the other hand, he has played in a UEFA Champions League final. And he has the winners’ medal to show it. He played that night as a left-midfielder, as he has done on several other occasions, but he’s also an adept left-back with a similar playing style to that of Ashley Cole. He’s pacey, quick to get forward and he covers the centre-backs well when needed (essential as John Terry shows no signs of getting any quicker). This season Bertrand already seems to be trusted with more game-time by club manager Roberto Di Matteo. And this trust in him by a manager who is clearly confident he is ready for top-level football should see him really improve between now and next May.
The 4th contender for the England left-back position is Arsenal’s Kieran Gibbs. The youngest of these 4 players, Gibbs has made a brilliant start to the 2012/2013 season. He appears far more confident and composed in possession. He is playing like he now believes he deserves to be playing at this high level. And last but by no means least, he will be benefitting from the addition of Steve Bould to Arsene Wenger’s coaching team. Bould was a part of Arsenal’s original famous back four and is already receiving many plaudits for the current side’s defensively solid start to the season. Gibbs will no doubt improve his education in the art of defending with Bould around. The 22 year old is already now keeping Andre Santos out of Arsenal’s team, despite the Brazilian only arriving from Fenerbahce 12 months ago. He will now be looking to add to his handful of England caps.
So England have gone from throwing caps around like confetti in desperate searches for left-backs, to now having real competition of quality players in this position. And whilst these players aren’t necessarily all at the peak of their powers at present, the coming years will see the best of the three challengers to Ashley Cole’s number 3 shirt.
Pictures courtesy of Allsport, mirror.co.uk, Getty Images and arsenal.com.